In our journey around the ancient boundary of Penge hamlet, we have reached a section where recent changes – i.e. changes over the past two hundred years or so – prevent us from following it on foot.
For many centuries this stretch of the Penge boundary, which was also the Kent-Surrey county boundary, made its quiet way through woods and fields, probably marked by the ‘shire ditch’. But in the early 1800s it was invaded by gangs of navvies who cut down trees, dug up land, laid down a deep trench, and flooded it with millions of gallons of water. The Croydon Canal had arrived.
The Canal, which ran from the Surrey Docks and Camberwell to Croydon, was a commercial venture but never a commercial success. In the 1830s it went bankrupt, and was bought out by a railway company which drained it and ran a new railway line along the bed. This still exists as the line from London Bridge to West Croydon via Penge West and Anerley. Odd remnants of the Canal survive: the well-known culverted stretch in Betts Park; and the beautiful fragment in Dacres Wood in Sydenham, cared for by the Friends of Dacres Wood Nature Reserve.
So: to return to the boundary line. The boundary leaves the Park and crosses Crystal Palace Park Road a few yards north of the junction with Thicket Road, cuts through the BT telephone exchange, crosses the railway line (which used to be a Canal), then bears south-west to cross Crampton Road at right-angles. It forges on, cutting across Kingswood Road and Mosslea Road, and through back-gardens behind Phoenix Road and Lucas Road, to hit the Penge Lane-Parish Lane junction just where Alexandra Nurseries now stands.
This wedge of land, hemmed in by the London to Croydon railway line, the London to Dover line, the High Street and Penge Lane, has been filled with houses since the late nineteenth century. But this ‘Beckenham parish’ post on Kingswood Road (marked ‘4’ in red on the map blow) continues to mark the old Penge/county boundary.
The fact that the county boundary cut through these streets played a key role in the notorious ‘Penge Murder’ case of 1877. Without going into too much detail: a young woman called Harriet Staunton appears to have been abused by her husband and his family at their home in Kent. When she fell ill, they rented a house in Penge and brought her here, where she died. They then tried quietly to register her death, presumably hoping to stay ‘below the radar’ in this busy suburb. But the road where the death occurred was cut by the county boundary, which led to further enquiries to establish whether it should be recorded as a ‘Kent death’ or a ‘Surrey death’. All of this drew attention to the Stauntons, and led eventually to one of the most prominent murder trials of the century.
The road in which Harriet Staunton died was called Forbes Road, and quickly acquired a ghoulish fame as the site of the tragedy. After a few years the local authorities tried to break this association by changing the road’s name: we now know it as Mosslea Road.
Enough of this morbid stuff. We have reached Parish Lane, with Alexandra Nurseries and the Alexandra Estate lying on its north-east side. In the eighteenth century, this land was occupied by ‘The Porcupine’, clearly shown on Rocque’s 1746 map. The Porcupine was a farm, but how it acquired its interesting name I don’t know. ‘Porcupine’ is quite an old word: it means ‘prickly pig’, and has been used more or less in its modern form since the sixteenth century. And the humble hedgehog has occasionally been referred to as the ‘English porcupine’. So maybe ‘Porcupine Farm’ should really be ‘Hedgehog Farm’?
For now, we’ll pause at Alexandra Nurseries before moving on next time to explore the Boundary Stream.